If there is one technology story that has dominated the inner circle of technologists in recent years, it’s not the rise of social networking or micro-blogging, but the phenomenal rise of Apple’s iPhone and the minor revolution that has resulted in the mobile sector.
Last night, the iPhone along with it’s latter-day wannabe competitor – Google’s Android platform – came in for some love, praise, criticism and analysis at Northern Startup 2.0 held this month at eOffice on Piccadilly Gardens. This month’s turnout was a little smaller than last month’s but the topic and audience were much more focused on one core area.
I think it’s worth just pointing out why technologists care about this as much as they do. You may suggest a phone is just a phone, right?
Well, not quite. For years developers have been trying to get their ideas for applications onto the handsets in your pockets. You probably have a phone right now (even if you don’t own an iPhone), that has the ability to run 3rd-party applications – typically written in Java ME – but the way this has been done in the past has been full of barriers preventing developers being able to get on board.
The issue (and we say this quietly lest they hear us), is the network operators. Quite simply, the mobile phone networks have for years had a tight hold on distribution and the number of people a developer has to work through in order to get their application from their head into your pocket has meant the margins haven’t been able to support the level of innovation in the sector you may be used to seeing on the Web. Add into this the fact that one application might need to be tested dozens (or even hundreds) of times to make sure it works across a wide range of devices with different screen sizes, the costs for the small software house have meant that mobile just hasn’t been an option.
And then came the iPhone.
The wonderful thing about the iPhone from a developer’s perspective is that Apple used their branding power to wrestle control away from the networks and managed to ensure that their iTunes App Store was where distribution was centralised, and at a better developer margin than previous solutions. Add into the mix a feature-rich device loaded with everything from GPS to a multi-touch interface and accelerometers, and the fact development and distribution could start with nothing more than a single £700 Macbook, it suddenly looked like a game-changer.
Google’s response in Android was even more salivating for us developers – Apple are an amazing technology firm but their handset sales in a market of 3 billion handsets is below 1% penetration. Google is providing a platform for competitors making up the Open Handset Alliance to have the technology and branding to ensure that platforms with rich technology features can become affordable for almost everybody, including those on non-Apple development platforms.
As I am often prone to muttering when the game is about to change wholesale, “Interesting times”.
So what did we learn and discuss at our local event? Surely when dealing with a market this international and broad, Manchester couldn’t offer any real new insight? Oh, how wrong we can be.
First up was Dave Verwer who I have known for some time thanks to his efforts behind NWRUG and other NWDC activities. A regular attendee of GeekUps and organiser of GeekUp Chester, tonight he came with his Shiny Development hat on, having rolled out some iPhone apps recently. He discussed the iPhones core features – which are many, as already mentioned – and sensible guidelines for producing an iPhone app including where to stay consistent with Apple UI guidelines, why to add polish and what user expectations are. In essence, a beginner’s guide to what to think about when conceiving of an application.
Katie Lips now of Appostles.com (previously known on the Northern scene as having previously been more involved in treasuremytext.com) was next up discussing how most iPhone developers go wrong by not marketing their apps correctly. Interestingly there seemed to me to be an interesting contradiction emerging out of this talk coming straight after Dave’s talk: that whilst the phone offers some amazing features, most application developers are focusing on the marketing perspective of the “iPhone demographic” and the most successful firms seem to specialise in “disposable” applications that might only be used a few times as fun.
The figures though are still astonishing. Both Katie and Dave pointed out that at 500m downloads of the 20,000 applications on the Apple store, the figures suggested the potential market was huge. Alas it is only the top few percent that make a reasonable monetary return due to a lack of sensible marketing and the Long Tail effects of digital stores.
Rhys Jones of Sanoodi showed us around a range of mobile phone applications he has been working on and an overview of different approaches to developing applications using different technology stacks. For me this was an interesting insight, however for most Mancunian Way readers it might be a little overwhelming. The videos will be coming online in coming days to take a look at for those interested, but the short version is that careful consideration needs to be made about what the best technology option could be. Many developers I know have been put off developing for the iPhone due to the fact you build for one platform – Rhys pointed out options that helped make an application much more generic.
Robert Wakeling of Wadaro discussed next the shape of the mobile application industry from a handset manufacturer’s perspective, and it was here the iPhone and Android bubble started to be pricked with the spiky pins of those with experience in the industry: Robert says he doesn’t own an iPhone because as an engineer he’s aware of the radio properties of the device, thereby showing we all assess feature sets a little differently. His talk, combined with the one that followed by Ben Hookway of Next Device pointed to an altogether different future for mobile phone development.
It seems the operators and handset manufacturers are trying to work out how to blow Apple’s party to pieces. They know full well that most people can’t afford an iPhone, that in fact much simpler devices are perfectly fine for most people and yet being able to open up application development to a wider audience is potentially a great revenue opportunity.
What really fascinated me though, was that nobody seems interested in the Android as a platform. At MWC last week that Ben attended (along with others in the audience), there was virtually no new Android phone announcements. The cause is apparently the difficulty with actually shipping a consumer-proof device successfully. Has Google bitten off more than they can chew?
The panel discussion afterwards was a little pointed at times – Dave and Katie come from a web background and therefore see the destabilising effects. Rhys comes from an applications background where for him the platform is just another application environment, albeit one with interesting properties. For Ben and Robert though, they were evaluating the scene much as how established players already see it – something that isn’t as big a deal as we might make it out to be.
I suspect that in the long term the right strategy is somewhere between all of those viewpoints – application development is about to get easier than ever before across more handsets because of the iPhone causing the market to change, and if you’re in a hurry the iPhone is where you need to be at. Android might poke it’s head up in 2010 but might be beaten down by a new generation of handsets and distribution channels that blow the game open once more. All in all though, it comes down to what the networks and handset manufacturers decide is the most appropriate strategy for gaining new subscribers: I would bet applications are where they place their chips in the next few years.
What is interesting for me in all this is the numbers. There are more mobile handsets in existence than there are laptop computers. It is the most pervasive and ubiquitous computing platform to have ever existed. Of the hundreds of millions of people who access the Internet for the first time in the next decade, the majority are likely to do so on a mobile device. This is the future of computing, and not for the first time the North of England has some of the experience and skills to capitalise on the next digital revolution – and whilst the market is large, the people behind the scenes are small in number, all you need is the right idea to make money in this area.
If this is the next revolution in software as I feel it might be: Viva la Revolution!